FOR SOME, he was one of the most subversive thinkers of his time — a 20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor. Many, especially in his youth, thought him to be a dangerous lunatic. According to others, however, he was just a charmingly irresponsible young man, who posed no dangers to others — only to himself perhaps. When his book on mysticism went to the printers, the typesetter — a good, God-fearing man — realizing how blasphemous its contents were, refused to touch it; the publisher washed his hands of the matter and the author had to publish the blasphemy elsewhere, at his own expense. Who was this man?
Emil Cioran (1911–1995) was a Romanian-born French philosopher and author of some two dozen books of savage, unsettling beauty. He is an essayist in the best French tradition, and even though French was not his native tongue, many think him among the finest writers in that language. His writing style is whimsical, unsystematic, fragmentary; he is celebrated as one of the great masters of aphorism. But the “fragment” was for Cioran more than a writing style: it was a vocation and a way of life; he called himself “un homme de fragment.”
Cioran was one of the most fascinating thinkers of the 20th century. He writes a lot about failure, as this article points out, but when you get past the nihilism on the surface of his writing and read more than one or two of his books, you can see that his ideas are luminous, nearly mystical, in their simplicity and beauty. He shares the thoughts of great thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, and authors like Beckett. His truths aren’t easy to digest, but they’re powerful.
His most interesting book is the 1000-page Cahiers (Notebooks), which he recorded between 1957 and 1972. It is just fragments, thousands of them, that circle around his main themes over and over again. Only available in French, if you do read that language, this is an essential book. (Amazon FR, Amazon.com, Amazon UK)